Jerry A. Yang is a PhD student in electrical engineering at Stanford University. He received his BS in electrical engineering from The University of Texas at Austin in 2020. He currently works on strain engineering in two-dimensional materials in Prof. Eric Pop's lab. In addition, he works on exploring the role of internships in first-generation and low-income engineering students' professional identity development in Prof. Sheri Sheppard's Designing Education Lab. He is a member of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) as well as a student member of the American Society of Engineering Education. He is also pursuing his MA in Education.
We sat down with Jerry to discuss his time at Texas ECE and his future goals in electrical and computer engineering as well as engineering education.
How did you end up doing your undergraduate work at UT?
Coming into engineering, I was well-aware that it was extremely easy for engineering students to just get sucked into the engineering discipline and never have the time or energy to approach other non-engineering interests. As a result, I purposefully selected my coursework to ensure that I was exposed to a wide range of humanities studies that were either intellectually or personally relevant to me, particularly in education, sociology, and LGBTQ+/Queer studies.
When it came time for me to write my thesis, I approached Dr. Maura Borrego with the idea of doing something education research-related rather than engineering-related. While I could have done an engineering thesis, I felt that I hadn’t really gotten the chance to showcase/flex/apply all the knowledge and skills I had learned in my jaunt across the humanities, particularly since I had learned a lot about myself in those courses that I didn’t really have a natural way of expressing through engineering. I came in with a list of “safe” potential thesis topics, but “LGBTQ+ engineering students” had somehow sneaked into the bottom of the list. I remember showing her my list, she pointing to that topic, and me being extremely awkward about it – I actually wasn’t fully out yet, so it would have been a huge personal risk for me. She encouraged me to take the risk, I did, and the rest is history.
When did you start at Texas ECE, what technical core did you focus on?
I started in August 2016 (fresh out of high school), and I initially thought I wanted to focus on integrated circuit design, but after a few research experiences in the semiconductor field, I ended up focusing on nanotechnology/solid-state devices.
Tell me a little about the research you are working on.
My current technical research focuses on exploring the optical and electrical effects of strain on novel two-dimensional atomically thin (think graphene-adjacent materials) toward enabling flexible computing. Essentially, this boils down to using very thin materials to make computers on bendable substrates such as skin patches.
In the engineering education space, I’m currently working on using critical theory and counterstory to unpack the ways in which marginalization, oppression, and structural inequity manifest within and impact marginalized engineering students’ lives. Much of engineering education research attends to how people in power (e.g. faculty, staff, administrators) can help engineering students through policy, but I have found that some of the most powerful motivators for change have been testimonies from students. Through my work, I’m hoping to disrupt predominant narratives of meritocracy in engineering and restore the power of student voices into the conversation.
Who has been a major influence on your life?
Aside from my advisors (Dr. Maura Borrego and Dr. Edward Yu), who have been and continue to be tremendous influences on my personal and intellectual life, I would say my friends – particularly the ones who put up with my...rather absurd sleep schedule. They’ve definitely become a “found family” of sorts, one with lots of memes and banter, mainly of the gay/queer variety. They keep me grounded when I overthink, discourage me from doing rash things, remind me of past experiences when I need it, actually reply with thoughtful comments, and overall give me joy in existence.
After that, I’d say the participants of my LGBTQ+ engineering students study and everyone in the LGBTQ+/queer studies classes I encountered. Having meaningful discourses with them quite literally changed my worldview and my views on my own identities to where I don’t think I would be where I am today without their experiences, even if it turned contentious at times.
If you could provide one positive memory of your time in Texas ECE, what would that be?
Meme culture. Back in my day, the UT Facebook meme groups were quite active with all sorts of memes being posted and shared, and it seemed that more than a few of the regular posters were ECE or engineering students. Memes were a way to find humor in the vicissitudes of engineering student life, often making fun of or twisting tropes to inject life back into my engineering experiences. I even appeared in a UT ECE bingo card meme once; that was a trip. I saved a lot of the good ones to my personal collections and revisit them every once in a while for a nostalgia kick. Nowadays, memes continue to be how I keep in touch with my ECE friends, since most of them have drifted away, so they serve both as a reminder of the past and a reaffirmation of relationships over time.
What is an important lesson you have learned in your academic career that you wish you could go back and tell your younger self?
Just do it. Don’t be rash in making decisions, but don’t waffle around for a year on something you know your heart isn’t into. Also, it’s okay to say no. Don’t push yourself to conform to the norm, but also don’t restrain yourself from trying new experiences (YOLO does exist for a reason).
What are your future goals after you have finished your PhD?
My career goal is definitely 100% academia. That said, I want to continue to straddle the line between engineering technical work and engineering education research as best I can and for as long as possible. I’ve faced many junctions in which I have felt that I had to choose between one or the other, but I’ve always found a way to avoid forcing my hand – so far, fingers crossed. Also having as many cats as possible in my life.
What does Pride Month mean to you?
I get to send my friends more aggressively gay memes from the phone archives. It’s Pride Month, baby!
On a more serious note, Pride Month has historically been contested for me. As I’ve grown into myself and stopped caring about what other people think of me, Pride Month has been a reminder of that growth and a call for me to be bolder, better, more adventurous while staying true to myself. But it’s also a month for deep reflection on my identities. I recognize that there are still areas of my life where I can’t fully be my authentic self, even in the queer spaces I might inhabit or go to in celebration of the month. I think that while Pride Month is important to have to celebrate queerness and queer/trans*/LGBTQIA+ people, especially those of color, the overt symbolism can mask many of the complexities and difficulties surrounding identities and existence. My life doesn’t suddenly become more glamorous on June 1st because "Look! I’m gay!" And it doesn’t suddenly remedy all the nuances of my lived experiences of being gay. Pride Month is as much a reminder of the work we have to do to achieve true liberation from oppression as it is a celebration of queerness.